Lean On Me

Jose

Last night we were lucky enough to see Jose James at The Highline Nightclub, doing songs from his album, Lean On Me, a tribute to Bill Withers.  As always, Jose James performing live was thrilling. His band was a group of killer musicians–didn’t get every name but the drummer was Nate Smith.  James said when he first started talking about a Bill Withers’ tribute album, on which he’s been working long enough to grow a significant Afro, he narrowed it down to sixty songs—he couldn’t do it without including all of them. He then met Bill Withers. They talked for three hours, after which James made the album “Lean on Me,” which includes ten songs. The tour is going on now.

After performing “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Hello Like Before,” and “Use Me,” everyone left the stage except the drummer, Nate Smith, who easily enrapt the audience. James and crew returned, James now wearing a pale blue suit circa 1972 that looked terrific on him. A trained jazz singer who incorporates hip-hop, R&B, gospel, and funk, he said people have been asking him, “Why Bill Withers? Why now?”

Several answers to that question, one of which is that he considers Bill Withers the greatest living songwriter. But the answer he offered as his go-to response was that “Lean on Me,” was an uplifting anthem on the level of “We Shall Overcome” (or “Lift Every Voice and Sing”.) Bill Withers grew up in West Virginia during the Jim Crow era.

The songs opening lyrics are:

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

and grow even more compassionate from there. I’ve been listening to this album for a few weeks now.  James’s live performance of “Grandma’s Hands” last night, I hope, will stay with me forever.

Most of “Lean on Me”  album isn’t on YouTube. To this day, scarce bits of James’s live shows are all that’s offered of his lyrics for John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” “Central Park West,” and “Resolution.” Limited showings, too, of his Billie Holiday tribute, which is both faithful to the original and stunning in interpretation.

Bill Irwin on Beckett

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Last night we saw Bill Irwin’s Exploring the Work of Samuel Beckett at the Irish Repertory Theatre.  The actor and clown you need to see to believe presented pieces developed from Beckett’s writings: Texts for Nothing; The Unnameable; and Watt.  The actor’s interaction with the prose–words he said haunt him–elevated dense prose into fast and riveting dramas about struggling to live, claiming to “give up,” (a slump, a sinking, and for a second it appeared he might sink into a grave), but as language persisted until the momentum seemed inescapable, admitting, perhaps not yet.  He also acted parts of Beckett’s plays, Endgame and, of course Waiting for Godot, in which Irwin has played the character Lucky and Vladimir. He said that, after memorizing the lines for the roles, he cannot forget them. And his presentation of Lucky’s monologue, along with examples of Vladimir interacting with Estragon, left no doubt that Samuel Beckett’s characters run through his head almost constantly. I learned, too, that while in the U.S., we pronounce Godot as Guh-DOE, in England and Ireland’s it’s GOD-oh. He said when he first appeared in the play in England someone asked if him by saying Guh-DOE, he was trying to seem “French.”

My husband overhead someone saying after the ninety minute performance, “That was a master class.” I wouldn’t know, except that it certainly didn’t strike me as a class. Staggering, funny, and enlightening, yes. But no class ever tapped so deeply into my self-awareness or made the fantastic and hilarious but dire struggle to survive seem so tangible.  My five (or six) senses absorbed things that were new to me, things I will never forget.